Thanks, researchers, for confirming what we already knew: If you're in the company of or at a party with a heavy drinker, you're more likely to have one, two, or three more drinks than you normally would.
Dutch researcher Helle Larsen set up a social experiment to observe young adults (who did not know they were being studied) in the presence of a "heavy drinker," aka a student actor assigned to order one to three alcoholic drinks. If the actor opted for a beer or a glass of wine, nearly half the particpants in the study did the same and drank two to three times more than if the actor only drank a nonalcoholic drink, like soda. Plus, Larsen found that the drinkers would sip at identitical times if they were both drinking alcohol, but didn't do the same if they were both drinking soda.
What's interesting, Larsen said, is that the factors traditionally thought to shape drinking behavior — stress, relationship (between the drinkers), and gender — didn't have a significant impact in this study. Said Larsen, "'The group dynamics might be so dominating that it overshadows the other individual factors that could determine the alcohol consumption." The only other factor that played a significant role in the study was genetics; Larsen found participants with a variant of the gene that controls the reward system in our brains were more influenced by the actor to drink alcohol compared to students without the variant.
As alcohol poisoning and peer pressure continues to plague college campuses, the study highlights a subconcious desire to imitate our peers. "It could be important to make people aware of the fact that they imitate the drinking behavior of others in social situations," Larsen says. So if you're planning on a Cinco de Mayo or a Memorial Day party in the next coming months, be aware of who you're tossing back drinks with.